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Who will own the Arctic?

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It’s a sticky subject. For much of human history, the Arctic Ocean has been largely unnavigable: The polar ice cap posed enormous risks for any would-be sailors. Over the course of 1903 to 1906 Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen managed to navigate the Northwest Passage, but the seasonal growth of ice rendered the route impassable much of the year. Through the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries may claim up to 200 nautical miles off their shore as an exclusive economic zone (and possibly more, depending on the state of their continental shelf), but no one really owned the North Pole or the Arctic Ocean.

Then two very important things happened: First, our species realized the Arctic is replete with hydrocarbons, just waiting to be extracted. Second, the Arctic ice began shrinking. The seasonal ice still renders makes much of the area unnavigable, but it looks increasingly likely that ships may one day be able to sail across the area.

And before you could say “Arctic black gold rush,” the race for fossil fuels kicked into full swing. It continues today.

It’s an understatement to say there’s a lot at stake. Studies estimate that as much as one-fifth of Earth’s hydrocarbon reserves may be locked beneath the disappearing ice, and in an age of dwindling oil supplies it’s difficult to guess how much all that energy could eventually be worth. It’s also difficult to guess how long it will take for the polar ice cap to disappear completely. Although experts predict the pole may be ice-free by as early as 2040, no one know for sure. This uncertainty has only added more urgency to the hectic scramble for territory.

The contestants ring the borders of the ocean: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia the United States all have claims to portions of the Arctic. In 2007, a team of Russian scientists famously planted a Russian flag in the seabed two miles beneath the North Pole. All five of the competing nations have put a lot of effort into justifying their claims (see the video below for more information):

Let’s fast-forward to the present day. Recent reports claim that Russia plans to officially expand its claim to the Arctic in 2012, potentially adding more than 400,000 square miles to their internationally-recognized territory. They’re hoping to secure this claim by proving that the Lomonosov Ridge is a part of their continental shelf. (For the record, Canada and Denmark beg to differ.) If the research is solid and the UN approves this modification, then Russia will receive a windfall. In addition to controlling the extraction rights for any fossil fuel or other resource, they’ll also gain more influence over Arctic shipping routes.

As you might imagine, environmentalists have numerous concerns about this situation. With these competing world powers in a rush to secure profitable energy resources and valuable control over trade routes, it’s increasingly likely that environmental concerns may fall through the cracks of the debate.

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